Bustle: Work, Service And America’s Unambivalent Attitude Toward Doing Business

I live in Germany with my wife. When Germans ask me where I’m from I say “California”. They often respond with “It must be love”.

When people ask me how I enjoy life in Germany, I usually explain that it’s a mixed bag. Achieving escape velocity from stairwell living in Germany is much more difficult than in the U.S. And where I come from, entering someone’s kitchen doesn’t require that the other person vacate in order to make room. On the other hand, lawyers do not have nearly in the influence in Germany as they do in the U.S. so you’re basically treated like an adult: if there are no cars coming the other way you just sail through roundabout rather than sit at the red light. Kids actually learn to avoid injury on real jungle gyms and the doors of public transportation have even been known to open before coming to a complete stop.

Then there is the issue of energy. I’m not talking about windmills, fossil fuels or nuclear power. I’m talking about bustle. I’m talking about the energy one witness at a busy airport.

Last night my wife and I attended a kind-of seminar headed by the maternity ward of a hospital some distance from our home in Germany. It was considerably further than the hospital in which my wife delivered our first child but we  she wanted to weigh our options and see what kind of impression this place would make.

We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were about 50 young couples in attendance. The evening consisted of a wordless, gauzy slide show of happy young couples with their newborn baby with a corresponding soundtrack followed by relatively short talks by three very pleasant women associated with the maternity ward. A few questions were asked and answered, followed by a group tour of the premises: various size birthing rooms, private waiting room replete with espresso machine, etc.

The whole thing ran between an hour and 90 minutes: excited, anxious and expectant couples gathered together over sparkling water to be sold on this particular hospital to give birth to their child.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t see a single couple interact with another the entire evening.

In the United States this would be unheard of: dozens of men in the prime of life attending with their wives a gathering of other pregnant couples and not using the downtime to get to know the other men, exchange pleasantries, even (gasp!) network? Young mothers-to-be surrounded by dozens of other pregnant women and none of them asking about due-dates and genders?

I’ve attended more social gatherings in Germany than I can remember and found them invariably pleasant: more pleasant, in some ways, than social gatherings in the U.S. But that’s the thing: in the U.S. everything is a social gathering. The energy there is palpable. Introducing yourself to a stranger in the setting described above strikes Germans a bit like handing out business cards during church services (note I say during church services: with the exception of the very pious, in the U.S. making contacts within a religious milieu is perfectly natural).

I read a book once by Rabbi Daniel Lapin called “Thou Shall Prosper: The Ten Commandments For Making Money“. The book explores the reasons why Jews and, by extension, the Americans, “get ahead”. The very words “get ahead” give many Europeans pause. It’s the tall-poppy syndrome: no poppy should grow conspicuously higher than the others. Nothing could be more alien to the American mindset.

But what about the person who lives only to get ahead? The man for whom networking substitutes for friendship? What about the man who gets more meaning pursuing his next raise than from raising his children? Is he to be admired? The American says “Of course not.” Most people intuitively understand the difference between someone who’s only trying to get in your pocket and someone who isn’t going to let the fact that you’re standing in the church parking lot prevent him from talking about how the service he provides can make your life better.

And that raises the fundamental difference. Americans have a much more profound sense of the value of one’s work to other people. There may be a way to earn money without making other people’s lives better, but I don’t believe it. Serving others is in no way diminished simply because it is remunerative. Every time you walk out of a department store with a new item of clothing you have played an essential role in a success story: the story of people getting what they want. (you a fleece, Nordstroms your money). It’s true for any economic interaction, whether it’s buying a book on Amazon or hiring the world’s funniest entertainer to perform at your next event.

Understanding that work, service and profit are inextricably interwoven is one of the many examples of American exceptionalism.

The Playboy Bunny Suit – An Appreciation

Male sexuality is so strange. I mean seriously: bunny ears? And yet, it works for me. Maybe it makes her look taller – longer legs, etc. The ears by themselves do nothing little for me – I want to be clear on that – but when you put the ears and the server together, well, that’s when the magic happens.

I like the floppy variety (pictured above). Some servers go with the standing-at-attention, old-fashioned tv antennae look, but the floppy ones suggest to me a certain frazzled dishevelment I associate with a woman who might utter the magic words “Sure, why not?”

The cottontail is more difficult to speak intelligibly about. Functionality and aesthetics require that it be placed higher than it would be on an actual rabbit, yet I can’t shake the sensation that it should be positioned slightly lower. What can I say, I’m a realist.

Last night I performed at the Playboy Club in Cologne, Germany and one of the servers was eating carrots at the bar. I think that’s what actors call “The Method”. Anyway, she looked great and it occurred to me that looking great could, at least in theory, be parlayed into advantages that could make life easier in various ways. Just a thought – perhaps I should explore this further depth.

I don’t pretend to know how the little shirt sleeves stay in place but I’m give them my enthusiastic seal of approval. It’s almost as if she’s wearing a conservative blouse that becomes, through some extremely weird hiccup in the cosmic fabric, invisible beginning just above the wrist. I approve.

On German Cops Trying – And Failing – To Give Me A Ticket On My Bike

I was riding my bike to the hardware store about 20minutes from our home in Germany. It was a sunny afternoon and there was little traffic. After stopping at a quiet intersection, I quickly resumed riding through the red light. Shortly thereafter I looked behind, saw a police car trailing me and knew immediately that I was being pulled over.

I’m good with cops in these situations. I’m 100% cooperative, humble and, most importantly, open: I admit guilt without stint. Doing so has enabled me to get out of tickets about the last six times I’ve been pulled over. This time, however, I felt I would not be so lucky. These guys, I sensed, wanted me to be ticketed.

I had never been pulled over on a bike before. I had never been pulled over outside the U.S. before. Both officers were younger than me – a depressing milestone. They seemed like the type of young men who spend most of their time lifting weights in their parents’ garage then throwing back beer at Germany’s equivalent of Hooters. When the first one stepped out of the car I said (in German) with the ingratiating tone of an experienced comedian: “I can’t speak German very well”. He replied (in German) “You can’t ride a bike very well either!”

He asked me where I live and said “On Kirchstrasse, with my wife”. “Show me your identification.” German authorities never ask questions – they make demands. I showed him my American drivers license. “Do you have something that shows you live at Kirchstrasse?” “No,” I said. Then, “Well, I do at home.”

His partner at this time was sitting in the vehicle with my drivers license and speaking on the phone – lots of back and forth. From the other officer the questions to me continued and I continued to answer. It became apparent that they were having some difficulty.

After about ten or fifteen minutes the other officer exited the car and approached me. “Okay. You will take us to your home to show us a document proving you live at 161b Kirchstrasse.”

“Oh, OK” I said, genuinely surprised and delighted (I suffer from clinical boredom and revel in such detours from the expected). There was a pause. “Um, do we put my bike in your car or do you follow me?” I asked.

“No,” said the cop. “You lock your bike and we drive you to your house.”

“I don’t have a lock” I said.

If things were going badly for these poor fellows before, this, I sensed, might be a knockout blow. The other officer returned to the car and the phone while his partner and I chatted about my background (American, comedian, etc). Another ten minutes passed. Finally, the officer exited the vehicle and they spoke to each other incomprehensibly.

Finally, I was handed back my drivers license and addressed in that scolding tone that suits German particularly well: “You ran a red light and the fine is 100 euros (about $130). Whenever you are in Germany you are required to have a proof of residency on your person at all times. Because you don’t have your proof of residency we must drive you to your home to get it. But because you don’t have a lock on your bike we can’t drive you. In the future you need to have your proof of residency with you at all times and have a lock for your bike. Only by doing so you will be able to receive your 100 euro fine.”

He didn’t really say that last sentence, although he may as well have.

An American In Germany

There’s a joke going around these days. A Spaniard, an Italian and a Greek walk into a bar. Who pays for the drinks? A German.

This joke well-illustrates a fundamentally different attitude between Germans and Americans. As an American, I don’t want to be taxed to provide for my own retirement. Germans, on the other hand, are content to be heavily taxed so that Mediterranean types can paint the town red.

Americans come from a long tradition of “live and let live”. You can pretty much do what you please provided you don’t trample on my rights. On the other hand, no word produces that warm, fuzzy feeling in a German quite like “verboten”. And the list of things that are verboten is long. At the top of the list? Spontaneity. Telling a German to “wing it” is like telling your dog about your day.

The German language is particularly exasperating to learn, which is why if you’re going to tackle it as a second language you’ve got to maintain your sense of humor. Of course if it’s your native language then it’s just the opposite (I was doing a show recently for a mix of Brits and Germans and while onstage I was mentally trying to determine who was British and who was German. I noticed one woman in the front row and thought “Well, she’s definitely German”. Then she laughed and I thought “Wrong again”.

My wife is from Germany and we were told that if my wife only speaks German to our young son and I only speak to him in English, then he will eventually learn both languages fluently. Well, Lucas is now 3-years old and he speaks only Dutch. (Dutch is a particularly loopy-sounding language. It’s much more comprehensible if you think of it as German on Heineken).

Actually, Lucas speaks German and English quite well, although sometimes he mixes up the two. For example, he’ll say things like “Airplane haben” or “Lass uns outside gehen”. Sure, it’s cute now – but what about when he gets to college and is saying things like “C’mon boys, let’s go get hammerschubend!”

Much of the German I speak I learned from Lucas. Gentle reader – you haven’t lived until you’ve been chastised by a bilingual 3-year old over your inability to properly conjugate “schleichen”.

We keep a foot in the U.S. and Germany and each home is representative of our respective countries. For example, our place in America has that homey, lived-in feel and our place in Germany is sufficiently dust-free to manufacture microprocessors.

Please know that I’m not generalizing about Europeans – I’m generalizing about Germans which, apparently, is fine with everybody. Take my wife (please!). As a German woman, Sabine is on the opposite end of the temperament spectrum from Italian women. She would never throw a shoe at me in anger, for example – she would do it with cold-blooded precision.

I won’t deny it – there is a cultural tension in our marriage. Sabine always wants the baby playing with wooden toys hand-made in Germany and as an American I think he should be playing with plastic toys mass-produced in China. (I was in Beijing once – boy, I thought San Francisco had a big Chinatown: those people are everywhere out there. It’s authentic, too – you can order cat right off the menu).

I sense I’m losing the ladies so I’m going to wrap this up.